As we head into the cold, dark winter months and the holiday parties that enliven the long months, it's all too easy to over-indulge. The sweets, alcohol and heavy foods that tend to be mainstays of the holiday time can wreak havoc on our energy, weight and health. So what is a holiday reveler to do? Improve your digestion!
The concept of digestion is a fairly simple one. Food goes in the mouth, is broken down and absorbed as it moves through the digestive system (which is little more than a long, hollow tube) and whatever is not used comes out the other end in a matter of hours or days. The reality is much more complex and really quite elegant. Understanding some of the finer points of digestion allows one to optimize the performance of this critical and under-appreciated function that we use 3 (or more) times a day, every day.
Many people probably think that digestion begins in the stomach (if they think much about digestion at all!), where the powerful stomach acid, known as hydrochloric acid, and a variety of enzymes start to liquefy the food you eat. The process of digestion actually begins before a single bite of food passes your lips. The smell, sight, and even mere thought of food triggers production of saliva, which contains enzymes to start the process of breaking down food (mainly starches). Saliva also helps the food slide smoothly down the esophagus to the stomach. The mechanical process of chewing (something many of us do too little, if at all) also helps break down the food into smaller pieces.
When we swallow, the food transitions down the esophagus into the stomach. Muscles in the stomach mix the food with digestive acids and enzymes, breaking it down into small molecules that move to the small intestine.
The small intestine is where most of the absorption of nutrients takes place. It is also where our helpful gut bacteria reside and aid in the process of digestion and absorption of food. If food is not thoroughly digested in the small intestine, it can lead to irritation of the gut lining, causing it to become permeable (aka, Leaky gut syndrome or hyperpermeable intestine). If our gut lining becomes hyperpermeable, too-large molecules of undigested food pass through, causing inflammation and over-reactive immune responses. This in turn leads to most of the auto-immune and other chronic diseases that are so prevalent in our world today.
(An important note about the digestive system: It is designed to digest and assimilate what we eat. So every time one takes a bite of food that is refined, denatured, full of industrial chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, or inflammation-promoting industrial fats, your digestive system will work really hard to incorporate that into every cell of your body. That is its job, and it’s very good at it. And once these undesirable substances become part of your cells, part of your basic makeup, it can be very challenging to dislodge them and flush them from your body.)
Eating gives your body the materials it uses to build muscles, bones, hormones, skin, and every other part of yourself. Our bodies are in a constant state of breaking down and building up, and eating is the opportunity to give our bodies the highest quality building materials we can. Even if we provide the highest quality local, organic, fresh foods we can find, if we can’t efficiently absorb the nutrients due to poor digestive function, then we are not getting everything we can from our food.
So what are some ways to improve your digestive function?
Eat REAL FOOD. Not refined and denatured food, or plastic-wrapped edible food-like substances.
Incorporate bitter and sour foods into your nutrition habit. The human tongue can detect 6 distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salty, astringent, bitter and pungent. Our society is very heavily skewed towards just two of these flavors, sweet and salty. Having a complete spectrum of tastes at each meal can help you feel more satiated and ensure you are meeting your full nutritional needs. For example, bitter, pungent and sour foods all trigger the production of saliva in the mouth, and also signal the rest of the digestive system to start producing digestive enzymes and acids. Bitter tastes in particular are important to trigger the production and release of bile, to aid in the digestion of fats. Bile is produced in the liver, and stored in the gallbladder. If you have had your gallbladder removed, it is extra important to help your liver make bile, since it cannot be stored without the gallbladder. Bitter tastes stimulate the metabolism and help absorb nutrients, two important functions of the digestive system.
Bitter tastes come from some leafy greens such as dandelion, nettles, and arugula. You can also make or purchase bitters, which are alcohol-based extracts of bitter herbs. Nettles and dandelion, two of the most nutrient-dense greens you can eat, can be wild-harvested from many areas in the spring. And they are FREE!
Bitter tastes help stimulate digestive juices, and stimulate the secretion of bile and pancreatic enzymes. This leads to accelerated gastric emptying (ie, you digest your food more efficiently) and improved digestion.
More great benefits of bitter flavors: they help control your sweet tooth. By balancing out our flavor spectrum, we reduce our craving for sweet tastes. Bitters also:
- Soothe gas and bloating.
- Relieve occasional heartburn.
- Calm upset stomach and nausea.
- Increase absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, K.
- Help maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
- Balance appetite.
Sour flavors come from some of my favorite foods: fermented foods! Include a couple tablespoons of sauerkraut or kimchi with each meal, drink a cup of plain kefir, use plain yogurt in your smoothies, eat sourdough bread. The process of lacto-fermentation creates nutrients that are easily absorbed by the body, lactic acid and enzymes which aid in the digestive process, provides a rich source of beneficial bacteria, and much more. The sour flavor, like bitter, also helps trigger enzyme and digestive juice production and aid in transitioning our taste buds from so much sweet to a more balanced flavor profile.
Pungent flavors such as ginger, coriander, hot pepper, turmeric and fennel all help with boosting metabolism, aiding digestion and can decrease inflammation. Incorporate any or all of these flavors into your cooking in their fresh and/or powdered forms. Fennel or ginger tea are wonderful before or after a meal.
Take your time to eat in a relaxed, calm manner. Very generally speaking, we have 2 major branches of the nervous system, the autonomic and the somatic nervous systems. The autonomic system is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to help us in times of stress, ie fight or flight. When this branch of the nervous system is active, our bodies are not able to digest food. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is known as our “Rest and Digest” nervous system. This is the one we want primarily dominant when we eat. So eat mindfully, consciously, and slowly. Don’t stare at a screen. Think about and enjoy the food you are eating.
Eat real food.
Incorporate bitter tastes with meals: use herbal bitters, or try eating dandelion, nettles and arugula sauteed with your dinner.
Incorporate sour flavors, such as sauerkraut or kimchi.
Incorporate pungent flavors such as ginger, coriander, hot pepper,turmeric and fennel.
Eat in a relaxed, calm manner.